How Big is Too Big?

In May 1999 Pope St. John Paul II warned the Bishops of Ontario on their Their Ad Limina Visit, “the anonymity of the city cannot be allowed to enter our Eucharistic communities.

I remembered this point recently when reading two news articles.  The first is about the dedication of the new St. Charles Borromeo Church, Visalia, California in the Diocese of Fresno.  With seating for 3,200 people, this new church is reported to be “the largest parish church in North America.”

Given the problems of priest shortage and the need for parishes to serve more people, I can understand the pastoral needs that led to the construction of such a large church.  But hearing the new church described as “a football field under a roof,” leads me to wonder if it is too big.

As I read about this new big church, I also reflected on another recent article that the decline in vocations to the priesthood is worse where priests serve larger flocks.  While I think that cathedral liturgy has its place and that occasional worship on a large level can be beneficial experience, I also think that Christian liturgy benefits from the intimacy of the smaller community where, to borrow a phrase, “everyone knows your name.”

I raise this point as a topic of reflection. Many small parishes are nonetheless islands of anonymity. Likewise, many have found the intimacy of true Christian community in megachurches.  Yet I think we cannot simply assume that the bigger the church building the more efficient it will be.

Cover art: Lakewood Church worship, in 2013, from Wikimedia Commons.




25 responses to “How Big is Too Big?”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    The second paragraph appears to be cut off in mid-sentence.

    1. Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue Avatar
      Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

      Thanks, I’ve now fixed it.

  2. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    Mega non-denominational churches know how to organize into smaller faith groups/bible studies, etc that meet during the week or as a part of their Sunday School program for adults. So there can be small communities within the larger Sunday experience. Lay pastors/pastoral assistants lead the smaller groups and the smaller groups function as a sort of small congregation where ministry needs are met. I think some large Catholic parishes attempt this model with small faith-groups or base communities, but we aren’t as well organized or funded as our Protestant counterparts. Clericalism could be a factor where empowering lay pastoral assistants is resisted.

  3. Todd Flowerday Avatar
    Todd Flowerday

    Vocations in the US have been in decline since 1947. To a large extent, seminary recruitment relies on encouraging and mentoring individuals. It seems megachurches would have difficulty there if priests are more administrators than pastors.

    If this is about the so-called priest shortage, maybe it’s more of an issue for us not getting the baptismal vocation right.

    If this is about churches being too big, I’d have to agree with Fr Allan. It depends. In my small parish, at one Mass, the music ministry numbers 10 or 11, and the attendance averages about 140. If I scaled that up with St Charles being half-full, I’d have an orchestra and choir on my hands. I don’t know how intimate that would be, but it sure would be fun.

  4. Charles Day Avatar
    Charles Day

    The best thing that I can say about really large churches – of whatever Christian denomination – is that there is usually room for everyone who shows up at Christmas and Easter. On the other hand, the average weekday Mass is a little weird.

  5. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    It doesn’t appear that the main floor has any chapels, but perhaps there are somewhere else:

    1. Michael H Marchal Avatar
      Michael H Marchal

      And why hasn’t anybody mentioned the elephant in the room, namely, that the Roman Catholic hierarchy has refused for decades to face the fact that, without ordaining married men, all we will have is megachurches. The ordination of women is a theological question; the ordination of married men is a disciplinary one, but they have refused to face it.

      1. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        The real elephant in the room is why, after 2000 years, we suddenly have a shortage of priestly vocations. This also goes for all the other indicators that show a steep fall-off of Catholic faith and practice. Those who refuse to acknowledge the disruptions caused by the reforms after the council are whistling past the grave. It is said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Are we going to keep doing the same things that we have for the past 60 years and expect different results?

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        Good question Father Forte. The reason is that a so-called shortage isn’t sudden, nor is it an outlier in church history, given how much the institution has relied on the mission apostolate, in some regions for centuries after the first proclamation. How can you expect to have priestly vocations when baptismal vocations aren’t cultivated? Racism and colonialism also play their part.

        Your comments about the council are ignorant of history and theology.

      3. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        Mr. Flowerday, I would be careful about whom I would call ignorant of history and theology. I would also ask you to look at the statistics here ( and continue to claim that the shortage has not been sudden, or that it has no connection with the post-conciliar Pauline reforms. If the cause for the shortage is a lack of cultivation of baptismal vocations, then are we to take it that there was that there was more of this before Vatican II than after? And how can racism and colonialism be factors in the vocation shortage in the US and Europe? There was a drastic, and unprecedented, change after the council, not just with priestly vocations but across the board with the practice of the faith. Willful denial will not change these facts.

      4. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        I don’t call people ignorant; just their ill-stated opinions. Otherwise your questions are good ones.

        “If the cause for the shortage is a lack of cultivation of baptismal vocations, then are we to take it that there was that there was more of this before Vatican II than after?”

        No. There was an institution within the Church that recruited more or less well for its own subculture. There was no wider sense of baptismal discipleship, with the exception of some religious outside of the cloister.

        Priests had an institution to back them up. And I’m not convinced most clergy pre-Vatican II were more membership-card holders in parishes, schools and chanceries. Today we have far more deacons, far more lay people. Clearly, some Catholics are heeding the call and responding. Just not in the ways they used to do.

        “And how can racism and colonialism be factors in the vocation shortage in the US and Europe?”

        Racism and colonialism were certainly a factor outside of Europe. Take Catholic countries like Brazil or the Philippines, or much of Latin America. After four to five centuries, Christendom was producing doctors of the Church, and a plethora of saints to be admired and imitated. Institutional Catholicism infantilized the faith where it touted its ability to evangelize. It kept potential pastors, leaders, and saints down on the farm, so to speak. The Tridentine experiment was like a miler getting a good kick off the starting block, then pausing for a cigar and a whiskey at the first turn in the track, then deciding to call it a day. So you baptized millions. The Evangelicals and the LDS have been outworking our institution for decades.

        And as for the slide into the modern situation, clearly, the pre-conciliar ethic must have had shallow roots indeed for such a “sudden” decline. Like many others, we lost the will for reform and renewal far too soon. We spent way too much time wringing hands over Humanae Vitae, when we should have been taking Evangelii Nuntiandi far more seriously.

        As for your claims, you might consider reading more widely than a Latin Mass website. Like many secular constituencies, they have their agenda to sensationalize at the expense of discernment.

      5. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        To state that a person’s opinions are ignorant is the the same as calling the person himself ignorant. Nor is it that I am ignorant of the liberal positions. I am, after all, the product of the modern seminary. I am well aware the liberals’ arguments. I just do not accept their conclusions. This arrogance in dismissing opposing views as “ignorant” is one of the causes of the strife in the Church today. Not only is it unjust, it is lazy; allowing one to ignore and not address the valid criticisms of others. It blocks, rather than advances, dialogue.

        To the topic of the lack of priestly vocations, the question is what changed. So that change cannot be a lack of cultivation of baptismal vocations as you first claimed. Nor can it be the disappearance of the former institution that recruited vocations before the council, as you now imply. That institution remained after the council but the vocations did not come. You cannot, as so many have, simply dismiss the impact of the post-conciliar Pauline reforms.

        As for racism and colonialism in Latin America, I will not dispute you. But this had no impact in Europe and North America, where we have seen a drastic fall-off of vocations.

        As for reading more widely than a Latin Mass website, I will point out that I posting here on PrayTell. In return, I would also suggest that you read more widely than liberal sources. Nor should you dismiss the factual statistics presented by a website because you do no agree with its editorial position. The facts speak for themselves regardless of who is reporting them.

      6. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        I think one problem with your point is the confusion of causality and commonality. There is no doubt that many churchfolk hoped that Vatican II would restore a 20th century decline in Roman Catholicism many of them noted. They were, perhaps, as wishful as many TLM advocates are.

        Being wishful and cultivating hope is a good thing, a strong virtue to be sure. The problem with both your liberals and traditionalists is that most of them talk past each other. At least on the internet. In real parishes, ideas combine and are considered in a working blend. I suppose growth can happen in large or small parishes, but it seems it occurs more often in communities with a strong sense of mission, of alignment with the Lord and his evangelical impulse.

        At least in the US, a university study in the mid 70s found that liturgical reform saved the Church from a greater hemorrhage of members and clergy. We all know Roman Catholicism is heading to a nadir. Many of us have our pet reasons why it’s happening. And yet here we are 45 years after the start of the JP2/B16 era, and look what hasn’t stemmed the tide (at least not yet): the catechism, the MR3, World Youth Days, the investigation of women religious, the Dallas Charter, to name a few. Why does it seem that anything we try seems to have so little effect? Especially the punitive stuff.

        A side note on “To state that a person’s opinions are ignorant is the same as calling the person himself ignorant.” Perhaps this is why so many people are skeptics on the hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner meme.

  6. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    I find an increasing dissonance between what Pope Francis seems to think about the future of the Church as ‘field hospital’ and as existing in smaller communities, and the thinking that gives rise to these ‘folies de grandeur’ ecclesial stadiums in the USA. I remember seeing one in Chicago and another one in Florida back in 2000 when I was over there on a course in liturgical design. I was not impressed.

    Our more recent church design maintains a divide between people space and clergy space which makes most of our re-ordered churches have the appearance of conference halls or lecture rooms. Add vast size to this, and you have something which is, frankly, anti-liturgical. And the moment one requires TV screens, it seems to me that one has lost the plot.

    I watched an Orthodox pontifical Divine Liturgy from the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski in Paris recently. It is not a large church, as far as I could see, and the liturgy, despite its formality and splendour, did not seem in any way impersonal, or distant. Many in the congregation could have reached out and almost touched their Bishop.

    Twenty years on, what will these megachurches be? Big emptiness is particularly discouraging.


    1. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

      I completely agree with your assessment. While I love magnificent large churches, shrines and cathedrals, of a traditional style and furnishings, like the National Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, I prefer the experience of Mass in its more intimate and simple, but quite traditional crypt church there. My own upbringing in a “modern” 1950’s small A-frame architecture parish church but with the TLM and its style of sanctuary and nave, brought the intimacy of clergy and laity together albeit in a pre-Vatican II form of participation.

    2. Michael H Marchal Avatar
      Michael H Marchal

      And how, Father Forte, would you address the question that perhaps there was no falling off of priestly vocations, rather the hierarchy refused to read the signs of the times and discern that God calling married men to presbyteral ordination. When married men were able to receive diaconal ordination, the response was overwhelming.

      1. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        The smaller, purer church: a self-fulfilling prophecy. Elder siblings triumphant.

        “Twenty years on, what will these megachurches be? Big emptiness is particularly discouraging.”

        Martin Luther might have said the same about St Peter’s.

      2. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
        Fr. Anthony Forte

        God has been calling men to priestly ordination for 2000 years and the Latin church has flourished with a celibate priesthood. It is only a self-serving rationalization to ignore the impact of the post-conciliar Pauline reforms and attribute the sudden drop-off of vocations to a change in God’s calling. We must also remember that this crisis of vocations is greater than just that of the priesthood; it is a crisis of the Christian vocation. We have witnessed not just a drop of vocations in the priesthood, but across the board in Mass attendance, baptisms, religious vocations, etc. None of these can be attributed to the refusal to ordain married men.

      3. Todd Flowerday Avatar
        Todd Flowerday

        You seem to persist in your insistence that vocations dropped off after Vatican II. Yet you haven’t addressed my query about why 1947 was the peak, and not 1962. Concerned Catholics would have already experienced a generation or more of decline by the time John XXIII called a council. The conciliar documents all take a positive approach to the priestly life–it’s threaded through at least half of them. Was the Council the problem? Or perhaps the post-conciliar hubris across the Church?

  7. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    The difference between St. Peter’s and the new megachurch buildings is that St. P’s was designed to make emptiness, aka space/volume, something to elevate the spirit. It scores both when it is full of people for a grand occasion, but also when there are only a few people wandering around.

    The same may be said of any large medieval church. These buildings were designed both for the liturgy, in both corporate and individualised form, and for pilgrimages, shrines and so on.

    And the Vatican Basilica is, most of the time, relatively empty.


  8. Padraig McCarthy Avatar
    Padraig McCarthy

    An alternative perspective is offered by Fr Tom O’Loughlin in New Blackfriars magazine in 2005, working from an understanding of the nature of the Eucharist. The 16-page article needs to be read in order to appreciate the conclusion:
    “For every hundred Catholics, there should be one person who has been authorised, i.e. ordained, within the apostolic tradition to act as the president of the Eucharist. And, any lesser ratio is indicative of an insufficient pastoral care for the communities due, in all likelihood, to a confused understanding of the intimate nature between the need for the Eucharist and the life of the Church, a confusion of the relationship of the priest and the Eucharist such that the celebration of Mass is seen as a function of the priesthood rather than the very existence of the priesthood be seen as a function of the need of the churches for the Eucharist, and lastly an inadequate understanding of the basic structure of the activity of the Eucharist which imposes its own intrinsic scale.”
    How many priests do we need? – O’Loughlin – 2005 – New Blackfriars – Wiley Online Library
    There would, of course, be exceptional occasions when larger congregations would gather.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      In the course of his argument, it seems that not more than 70-80 people is proper, but loosens back up to 100 in his conclusion for reasons that eluded my first reading.

      Btw, he decries multiple chalices as an impoverished form of sign, for that matter, thereby providing something to irritate across the trenches of the liturgical culture wars. (Perhaps this struck me because I am sympathetic to the stronger sign value of one loaf, one cup, with the priest and deacon serving the congregation, though the essay only mentions deacons in passing in its last sentence.)

      He’s bringing in a lot of interesting principles, but his arguments are shot-through with conclusory reasoning. It’s still worth a read for the principles gathered for consideration, just not as much for the conclusions he chooses to draw from them. (He’s also skipped over historical facts, such as that the use of unleavened bread is not a unique development of the Latin church, but also of the also-ancient Armenian and Maronite churches.)

      * * *

      I could offer another approach to the consideration of size: a gathering where the participants cannot readily engage in singing the Mass (including the dialogues) *together* without relying on an electronic sound system would also be a compromised sign. (For this reason, I consider outdoor mega-Masses to be severely compromised in that way – those venues would be better served by being limited to popular devotions, for which a congregation acting as a unified voice is less of a sign issue.)

      1. Alan Griffiths Avatar
        Alan Griffiths

        On a recent visit to the Irish National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin I saw the two chalices, the so-called ‘Ardagh’ chalice and the ‘Derryneflan’ chalice. These wonderful artifacts from early medieval Ireland glisten and gleam at one softly in their museum cases. They are masterpieces of silver, gold and enamel work. The latter comes with a large paten and, it seems, a stand to support it. There are remains of other smaller chalices too in the same room. The exquisite character of these vessels surely testifies to the faith of their makers and users.

        It brought to mind the question of exactly how these pieces were used. I then thought of the document known as the Ordo Romanus Primus, usually dated to the end of the 7th century AD.

        In this description of a Papal Easter Day Mass in the Basilica of Saint Mary on the Esquiline Hill, there is one chalice on the altar which contains some of the wine offered by representatives of the people. Other smaller chalices are brought forward after the Anaphora into which the Precious Blood from the large chalice is poured. These chalices are then filled with other wine which had been offered and, presumably, though not certainly, kept near the altar. It was these smaller vessels which were used for communicating the people.

        With our sacramental understanding about ‘words of consecration’ we would find this action difficult to justify, even if we had all the ritual minutiae to hand, which the document denies us. But suddenly it all came alive to me when I saw these ancient and beautiful eucharistic vessels.


  9. Michael H Marchal Avatar
    Michael H Marchal

    Father Forte, what you call a “self-serving rationalization” I would call facing the facts, including other facts such as the Latin Church ordained married men for half its history and that the Eastern Churches have flourished with a predominantly married priesthood. If the Roman Church in this country has gone in little more than a half century from having the only deacons be transitional to a situation where in some dioceses a majority of the ordained being married men, I would still submit that God is trying to tell us something.

  10. Ronald Franco Avatar
    Ronald Franco

    Why this need to prescribe an optimal congregation size? It seems obvious that there is no such thing. Jesus instructed his disciples in a small intimate setting (e.g., the Last Supper) and in presumably much larger gatherings (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount), each a very different but distinctly valuable experience.
    Likewise I have participated at Masses of a half-dozen or so in a small novitiate chapel and a thousand or more at cathedral diocesan-wide celebrations. Each served its own purpose. Each was aesthetically satisfying (simple and quiet in one case, artistically and musically grand in the other). Each served to build a different community – a particular religious community in the novitiate, a diocesan-wide one at the cathedral. Neither was inherently superior to the other.
    The fact that a large Catholic population is not matched by an appropriately sufficient number of priests to serve them is, indeed, a problem, but the problem is not inherently that of the size of the congregation. Larger congregations may enjoy resources smaller more intimate ones lack. Smaller ones may enjoy intimacy and face-to-face relationships with large ones may lack. Neither seems necessarily the only possible path to perfection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: